No Itinerary, Only a Promise

January 08, 2019 | Missions and Outreach | Seth Pierce

I once read a story about a young cartographer who returned to his ancestral village to create the first map of the area. When he completed his work and the beautiful new map was crafted, he showed his father what he had done. His father was not pleased.

The map was technically accurate, but the father lamented that it did not capture the story of the land. The lines and squiggles said nothing of the injury he sustained climbing a particular mountain or the torrential rain that could occur in one part of the jungle. It didn’t reveal the time a villager was nearly mauled by wild animals while relieving himself by the river. The map couldn’t tell the story like a local, which meant travelers might not be fully prepared for the direction their adventures could take them.

This story not only illustrates the differences between how oral and print cultures think but also a stark truth: The map is not the territory, not the whole picture.

Have you ever gone on a trip where things didn't go as planned? When I recently flew to Virginia for oral exams, I had a series of irritating incidents, trials and debacles that tried to prevent me from taking my test. For example, because I didn’t want “hangry” professors overseeing the process, I woke up early on test morning to fetch something special for them. With some prior sleuthing, I knew they would love treats from Amazing Glazed. Arriving there early, I found a handwritten sign: “Closed due to family illness.” Having passed my exams now, I can say with sincerity I hope they all recovered. That morning I may have wished it was Ebola virus.

What to do?

Panera Bread and Starbucks didn’t have the white chocolate macadamia nut cookies my major professor desired. As precious minutes ticked away, I had to settle for a Subway cookie in the nick of time before the exam. Nothing I planned seemed to work.

No doubt you have your own stories. Getting sick, hurricanes on a tropical vacation, car troubles, hidden fees and surprise expenses, lost bags, and lost sanity are all part of the fun of making plans that don’t always work the way you anticipated.

We have grown accustomed to often unrealistic expectations — having everything work exactly the way we have painstakingly planned. In the early 1960s Daniel Boorstin wrote a book called The Image. Its ideas are still applied by journalists and theorists today. In one chapter he talks about how we have changed from travelers to tourists. Speaking of the planned and reactive luxury of our travel experiences, Boorstin writes, “The tourist gets there without the experience of having gone. For ages the sensation of going there was inseparable from the experience of being there. Now, when one risks so little and experiences so little on the voyage, the experience of being there somehow becomes emptier and more trivial” (p. 96).

After all, is it really an adventure if you’ve already planned how everything will transpire?

I recently finished preaching a series on Romans in which I reflected on Paul’s “plans” to visit Rome “by way of Spain” (see Romans 15). Yet anyone who has read Acts 21–28 knows Paul’s plan took several adventurous detours including accusations, arrest, beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck and a venomous snake bite to boot before being taken as a prisoner under house arrest to Rome. Not exactly a tour you would advertise in a travel brochure. This chapter made me wonder what we might miss if we simply approach the adventure of faith as a preplanned and tidy travel package.

In a world of manufactured experiences, the life of faith becomes program management instead of unscripted conversations with others. And when a church doesn't have enough programs or activities, we feel like it has nothing to offer. Instead of believers who take risks in developing new friendships, becoming involved in the life of a local community or seeking healthy conversations with different people, we wait for programs that meet our personal preferences.  

Do we have a real relationship with God if we get to script the entire thing? Do we even have room for true adventure anymore? I am challenged by Jesus’ words in Matt. 28:19–20 to “go” to all the world and share His love. He doesn’t give us an itinerary — only the promise of His presence. Maybe it’s time for less control and more faith in the adventure God holds out for us.